David Halberstam, who died Monday in an auto accident, was one of the greatest among a pivotal generation of reporters and writers who reshaped the intellectual and stylistic landscape of American journalism in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Unlike his close friends Gay Talese, Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne and Hunter Thompson, Halberstam seldom is linked to the tendency -- it never really was a movement -- that Tom Wolfe first called the New Journalism. The influence of his work from that era, however, remains decisive.
Because so many other writers have followed the path he first marked out, it's difficult now to recall just how revolutionary his 1972 book "The Best and the Brightest" then seemed, with its synthesis of meticulous reporting, historical consciousness and narrative technique. Halberstam, moreover, brought these things to bear on a situation, Vietnam, which was then ongoing. It was the beginning of an entire genre of timely, narrative nonfiction books that we now take for granted, even as they enrich our public conversation.
Perhaps more important, Halberstam was the exemplar of a courageous intellectual approach to journalism that found its first clear public expression in a young combat correspondent's refusal to buy the government line on Vietnam. They were there; they trusted the evidence of their eyes and refused to look away, no matter how much pressure successive American administrations and the local military commanders brought to bear.
As he said in a widely discussed Commentary piece in 1965, "No one becomes a reporter to make friends, but neither is it pleasant in a situation like the war in Vietnam to find yourself completely at odds with the views of the highest officials of your country. The pessimism of the Saigon press corps was of the most reluctant kind: many of us came to love Vietnam, we saw our friends dying all around us, and we would have liked nothing better than to believe the war was going well and that it would eventually be won. But it was impossible for us to believe those things without denying the evidence of our own senses.... And so we had no alternative but to report the truth."
Forged in civil rights era
There's a significant truth embedded in that passage. In the years that followed, critics would attempt to paint Halberstam and others fortunate enough to be described as his colleagues as practitioners of an "adversary journalism," one rooted in one or another ideological hostility to American values and American institutions. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, while Halberstam won his Pulitzer Prize as a 30-year-old New York Times correspondent in Vietnam, I've always thought the experience that informed all of his subsequent work was his first full-time reporting job, covering the civil rights movement in Mississippi in the late 1950s. Like other idealistic young men and women who went south in those years, he believed segregation was wrong precisely because it was aberrational, a falling short of national ideals in which he believed deeply, a denial of the basic American goodness to people entitled to share in it. Here is how he later described the young journalists, like himself, covering the trial of the two white men charged with murdering Emmett Till, a young African American, for allegedly whistling at a white woman:
"The editors of the nation's most important newspapers were men in their 50s, who by and large held traditional views of race but who, because of the Brown [school desegregation] decision, were going to pay more attention to the race issue. Their reporters were different. They were younger men in their 30s, often Southern by birth, more often than not men who had fought in World War II and who thought segregation odious. Moreover, they thought World War II was, among other things, about changing America and the South, where things like this could happen.
"They had long been ready to cover the South. Now they had their chance. The educational process had begun: The murder of Emmett Till and the trial of the two men accused of murdering him became the first great media event of the civil rights movement. The nation was ready; indeed, it wanted to read what happened."
Those observations embody both the character and the arc of Halberstam's subsequent project. As he often remarked in his many speeches around the country, he left the South with "a great faith in the common sense of the American people," a renewed faith in American idealism and a courageously unshakable skepticism about the trustworthiness of those in authority to do right by either one.